This Is Not A Drill

Photo of wildfire smoke over my hometown
by Prem Moktan

I’d invite you to peek into my mind right now, pull back the curtains just enough to get a slivered view, but there isn’t much to witness. If anything, all you’d come upon is a blizzard of static. Shades of gray and white manic snow buzzing about without purpose, crowding anything of substance from fully forming. Simply, I am tired. Body and mind are running on reserves of energy whose origin I don’t question. But I am not unique in this fatigue.

I evacuated two days ago, along with my mom and her dog. An unusual summer lightning storm sparked hundreds of fires up and down the state of California. There are large wildfires threatening my hometown and thousands of residents in the surrounding area. The one closest to us covers 50,000 acres. Another nearby, the Hennessy Fire, is more than three times the size. The city proper has been issued an “evacuation warning”, but by the time you read this there may be another round of lightning and residents could be directed to follow a mandatory evacuation.

People I know, people who I have worked with or gone to school with or nod to at the grocery store, have lost their homes. Some are still in wildfire purgatory, waiting to hear news about whether their generational family properties have burned to their soil foundations. Most of us are experiencing some level of PTSD. Three major instances of wildfires in four years is traumatic, and cruelly routine.

The last time Mom and I left our house under such circumstances, the Kincade Fire specifically, was only about ten months ago in the fall of 2019. During that chaos we evacuated twice within twenty-four hours, the second time in the moments just before dawn when it feels most unnatural to be awake.

And of course the COVID virus is still finding ample human hosts around the globe, most especially in the United States where I live.

This is why I am on day 159 of caregiving without a full day off. During these one hundred and fifty-nine days I have experienced depression, anxiety, a panic attack, grief, resentment, jealousy, fear, loneliness, and dread. It has also been peppered with moments of quiet, laughter, connection, support, resilience, strength, perseverance, creativity, motivation, and gratitude. Too many emotions to process at once and often. Every other week there is a new challenge, a forced pivot to avoid taking on the brunt of the next matter-of-fact disaster.

This broad stroke doesn’t even mention the other issues specific to this country, many of which are systematic and despicable, bubbling to the surface as nerves become more frayed under pressure.

But I am safe. I am with family. I have a place to stay for the time being. My other work is on pause again, but I am able to continue my writing remotely. I am COVID free. I have been able to protect my mom through all of this.

Others are not as “lucky”.

And yet, it does not detract from the validation of my exhaustion.

Mom has nearly no short term memory left, so she does not understand that there are wildfires or that we are natural disaster refugees again. She did nothing to help get things in order before we left, not that I exactly expected her to. She watched me pack her things into boxes and a suitcase, sweating in the summer heat that had crept into the house. Many times she asked where I was going. Once, when I reminded her that there was a wildfire encroaching, she giggled.


My disgust was quick and furious, most difficult to suppress. I didn’t have time to choke down the venom of my hatred for dementia, nor feel the shame of my reaction. I at least had the wherewithal to leave the room before catching jagged words between gritted teeth.

When it was time to finally leave under the threat of an apocalyptic smoke blanket of sky, she took her time putting on her shoes. Before we reached the front door she casually asked if it was too late to go to the bathroom. She had no awareness of the car being packed to the brim with our most beloved and necessary possessions.

This is why I decided to leave town before a mandatory evacuation was issued. The idea of staying in the house a moment longer with a person whose cognition made emergencies more dangerous, nearly broke me. Her trivial nature and ignorance of reality can be wholly offensive at times, most especially during heightened events such as this. Beyond flinging her over my shoulder and walking out the door, there is no foreseeable way to swiftly direct a person with dementia through a dizzying and urgent, middle-of-the-night evacuation. I can’t even bring myself to imagine what it would be like if the flames were lapping at our porch. How in the world does anyone deal with these things? I suppose this is rhetorical, because in any moment of grit we just do. Understanding the how is to be studied in the aftermath, but really, what’s the point?

Marking Time with a Birthday Request

It’s not uncommon for adults to dread getting older. Over the last year or so I have noticed that both of my parents have made sporadic, off-hand remarks regarding their age. Mom will be seventy in just a few weeks, and Dad will celebrate the same milestone a few months following her. I think the idea of being in their seventies, understandably, makes them anxious and worried. No one is guaranteed any length of lifetime, but in general we like to think we’ll live until our eighties or nineties. This leads me to reasonably believe that my parents are perturbed about the reality that they are getting closer to the end of their lifespan, whenever that may actually be.

Mom has no idea what year it is, let alone what month or day of the week. For her, time is a foggy construct that bears little use. Well, at least in any way that the rest of us are familiar with. The only instance she really looks at a clock is when I ask her if she’s hungry. Her instinct is to see if the glowing numbers indicate a meal time, instead of listening to her body. If it weren’t for me prompting about her hunger I’m certain she wouldn’t notice if I covered or removed all of the clocks indefinitely.

Whenever I have enthusiastically mentioned that her seventieth is approaching Mom will moan, “Noooooo.” Her face will slump into a pouty face and she’ll look at me with an accusing brow. I’ve tried to remind her that it should be something special to celebrate, but she hates the idea of being old. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t have any idea how hold she is, or I am, until I bring up her birthday.

As the pandemic has been categorically the worst event to affect her health and speed up her cognitive decline thus far, I would like to do something to let her know she’s loved. Snail mail is something I think everyone treasures, especially since personalized mail is a rarity today. A couple friends of mine generously sent her mail toward the start of quarantine and she loved it. She teared up when realizing that people were thinking of her and had taken the time to send her mail. She’s a very social creature so being stuck at home all of the time is very, very hard on her.

I don’t doubt that she’ll be completely over the moon to receive more mail for her birthday. So, if you would like to be involved with this little birthday surprise and send my mom an email, a postcard, or a note in the mail please contact me at: Her birthday is in early October so the deadline will be September 21st. That will give me time to gather all of the notes together to present them to her and also allow for an ample time frame for the messages to arrive.

With gratitude,


Like Settling Dust

I could feel it rolling in, a series of swift and whispering waves in the center of my chest that grew stronger with each pulse. Soon there was no pause between the tightening intervals. The grip on my heart stole my breath away. My body felt weightless, similar to the blink of a moment just before you fully drop from the first steep slope of a roller coaster. The body unnaturally suspended, yours and also, not yours. Yet unlike with the roller coaster there is no giddiness tied to this particular weightlessness. It is a warning, a signal flare. Your body has been through trauma. This is violence of an aftershock.

No more than two hours before I had been standing in the kitchen of a modest home tucked in the wooded mountains of Northern California. As I diced plump garden tomatoes and sweet yellow onions he asked, “Lauren, have you heard of CBD?” We discussed briefly of how it can be useful. He was looking for pain relief without a high. I was already using it sparingly to help manage my anxiety. He was intrigued that I had already been using it, though I’m sure I had mentioned it before.

“Yeah, I use it here and there when I’m having a particularly awful spike in anxiety, so that I can try to avoid taking my prescription meds. Surprisingly I haven’t had a panic attack since before the pandemic hit us in mid-March, which is weird because my stress levels have been through the roof.”

Sweeping the contents of the salsa from the cutting board to a bowl, I brightly announced I would be heading outside to read in the hammock.

In my sacred space, the utmost of comfort between towering pine trees, I lay engrossed in a book until the sunlight crept away. Without enough visibility to read I switched to playing a game on my phone. I wasn’t ready yet to leave the cocoon.

It was then, after twenty minutes of mindless gaming I felt the first wave roll in, a squeezing around my heart. Taking casual note of the unpleasant sensation, I inhaled a few deep, purposeful breaths in the hopes it was the mild beginnings of heartburn. Within moments I knew all too well that the pain was something equally as familiar, but sinister in origin. The hope of heartburn was a foolish wish to lean on.

When the pressure became too strong to ignore I lowered myself from the nylon cradle and walked swiftly to the house. Right away Dad could tell something was not right.

“Are you okay Lauren? What’s wrong?”

All I could muster was a quick, “I’m having a panic attack.”

“Can I get you something? Do you want to sit down? Do you need me to do anything?” he questioned with slight urgency.

I reached into the bowels of my purse with one hand as I shook my head. With fingers locked around the bottle I was looking for, I could hear the promising shake of its contents as I lifted it to meet my other hand. I freed a single diminutive pill, washed it down with a swig of chocolate milk, and plopped into the reclining chair next to Dad.

I don’t remember the specifics of what he said, but I do know that he did his best to distract me from my own body, improving jokes and commentary regarding whatever was playing on the television.

I reciprocated with a truthful gesture of comfort of my own. “I don’t think this one’s going to last very long. It feels like it will be over soon.”

My mind didn’t feel panicked. I wasn’t worried or frightened by what was taking place. This was the fourth panic attack to date and they had all played out the same. The only difference between them was their unpredictability in timing and the length of the episodes.

I wondered silently if I had jinxed myself, taunted the pain from it’s hiding place by claiming that it had left me unscathed during these last several months of peculiar hardship.

No. I quickly knew that to be untrue.

It was much more likely that everything, body and soul and emotions, had finally eased up from working in overdrive. This short vacation in the woods had acted as a slamming of the brakes after the weeks upon weeks of survival mode I had been enduring. And with the momentum abruptly stopped I had slammed face first into the windshield. The woods, the hammock, the air scented with pine and iron-rich dirt, had acted as my safety belt. But even with this I still felt the impact of the halting crash.

If you’ve been a reader for awhile you may remember that my parents and I snuck away to this very same property a few months prior. At first I wondered why I didn’t experience a panic attack during that trip, but thinking back it makes sense. You see, I spent most days of that trip helping Dad with projects. I emptied out an entire shed, cleaned it, and re-organized all of its contents. I made meals and helped my Mom sporadically throughout each day. Yes, I did read in the hammock periodically, but I know that I was subtly tense. It was the first time we had travelled together, just the three of us. As with all new experiences that include Mom I was anxious for it not to go well. Thus, I never fully and truly relaxed, nor let go of the tension I had been gripping during the previous weeks of instability regarding the state of the world and of my own.

The day after the panic attack in the hammock I was bogged down with drowsiness and lethargy. I napped several times but never felt rested. My body was still in the process of letting go, releasing the anger and fear, uncertainty and loss of control that comes with a global health emergency.

I didn’t hike or take pictures on this trip. I didn’t do the traditional float down the river in an inner tube or even play card games with Dad under the glow of a waning moon. Instead I, we, all melted in place. The outdoor table and chairs are still untouched, covered by the protective tarp I had placed on them months ago. My hiking shoes haven’t left the reusable shopping bag I brought them in. The 103 degree heatwave only added to our sluggishness.

Time has not been wasted though. In fact, I’d say the opposite. We have coddled our time here most appreciatively, settling into the earth and our bodies like dust after a windstorm.

Self Care and Dating as a Millennial Caregiver: Part Three

In my experience dating apps have made a majority of participants more avoidant of all levels of vulnerability. Dates aren’t labeled as dates, they’re nonchalant get togethers or hang outs. By calling a date something more casual, even though it doesn’t do a damn thing to change the context of the interaction, men can tell themselves they’re not responsible for bringing any sincerity, effort, or intention to the table. It’s just a “hang out”, so they can feel like they have avoided a situation in which they’d get rejected. If the woman isn’t interested it doesn’t matter because “it wasn’t a date anyway.”

Even if there was a decent connection or spark it doesn’t seem enough to curtail the modern siren song of the constant ding! from his cell phone, notifying him that he has a new match on one of his dating apps. Quantity over quality. Really I should say: Quantity over vulnerability and true connections, growth and genuine satisfaction.   

It’s been scientifically proven that getting matched with someone online provides a hit of dopamine to our nervous system. The moment we know that someone finds us attractive, without us having to face them in person, is the reason many get stuck as dating app bachelors. Like lapping up cocaine dust one particle at a time, egos will never be satiated by the small satisfactions of a thousand virtual winks from women. These type of bachelors stay behind their self-constructed dating firewall. They’re unwilling to submit themselves to any level of vulnerability, thus setting themselves up for perpetually shallow interactions that never lead anywhere meaningful.

Over the years I’ve learned to be upfront about what I’m looking for at the beginning of my interactions with a dating prospect. I’ve found that it has helped to weed out the people who are not on the same page as me, but it still hasn’t eliminated the issue entirely. In fact the people that I do spend time getting to know online and in person are more often than not unsure of what they actually want or are lying about their motives. I can’t control other people and how they choose to approach things, but I can at least control myself and start off with honesty in the hopes that we don’t waste each other’s time.

If I’m looking to casually date, I’ll say so. If I’m in a place where I’d prefer a relationship, I’ll be state as such. Usually early on in our conversations I’ll ask, “So, what are you looking for on this app/site?” The most frequent answer I get is: “Oh, I’m open to anything really. If I connect with someone and we get into a serious relationship, great. If it’s something lowkey, that’s cool as well.”

Lately my response has been: “I’m looking for a relationship, but I’m in no rush to make that happen because I don’t believe that’s something that should be forced. I’m content, independent, and happy being single in the meantime.” I like to clarify in this way so that I can relay that I’m not needy or desperate for affection from just anyone. I’m not looking to get married tomorrow just for the sake of being married. I have patience and am willing to put in the work for someone special, give people a chance to open up and be real with me so that we can see if we can grow together and have fun along the way.

This next dating conundrum can potentially be considered rude to any number of degrees, or not at all, depending on the individuals involved. I’m of course referring to who pays for the first date. I’ve experienced a whole range of variation when it comes to this situation. Men have asked to split the check, some have insisted on paying for me, and one let me pay for both of us. I’ve talked to many people about what they think is the “correct” approach to this dating scenario and I’ve heard a variety of answers. When it comes down to it I think it really depends on the preferences of the two people on the date.

I personally prefer a guy to pay for a first date, especially if they’re the one who asked me out (and not vice versa). Though it’s not a deal-breaker if they don’t. I’m not a high-maintenance woman, nor do I want or expect someone to splurge on a first date, but I take the gesture of covering the cost of the date as a sign of basic intent, respect, and courtesy. In general, I feel like I need this initial reassurance so I can have somewhat of an idea about the character of the person in front of me. Getting to know one another over a couple of lattes at a local coffee shop is a lovely, low-pressure first date option, but having my date treat me to my four-dollar beverage is a way for me to gauge whether or not they’re serious about their intentions and can make a point of distinguishing the difference between a date and a hang out.

I do feel a tiny bit conflicted though. I am extremely independent and pride myself on working hard to pay my own way. I can afford to splurge on a four-dollar coffee. But I’ve come to the conclusion that I want a partner who can recognize and respect that I am self-sufficient, yet wants to treat me here and there anyway. To be fair, I am the type of person who likes to reciprocate. In fact, once a steady relationship is established I like my significant other and I to take turns treating one another. Even though we’re technically still splitting the costs, it feels more fun that way. This type of framework may not be what works for everyone else, and that’s okay.

Before continuing, let me further clarify that I’m not saying that straight men are the only ones who exhibit poor dating behaviors. Again, I’m only speaking from my experience as a hetero female. I’m calling everyone out. Almost all of us could use some work on how to be better at dating in general (me included). It takes practice, self-reflection, and mindfulness. The kind of lazy, narcissistic, insincere approach to dating I’m dedicating this essay to is not acceptable behavior from anyone. I don’t care if you’re looking for hookups, marriage, a steady partner, a polyamorous relationship, or something in between. Be honest.

Despite my attempts to only connect with people who are at least looking for the same thing as me, I still find myself consistently navigating through bullshit very early on into our interactions. The following are the archetypes I’ve frequently come across. Let it be noted that the men I used as examples are only one of many I’ve encountered who fit into these condensed labels I’ve constructed.


  1. Doesn’t engage in thoughtful conversation or texts. Gives one word answers and relies heavily on chat acronyms (TTYL, EOD, IMHO, etc). Doesn’t keep the conversation flowing. Doesn’t ask reciprocating questions.
  2. Quickly directs the conversation to a sexual tone.
  3. Sends dick picks.
  4. Mysogynistic.
  5. Immature.

Example: At one point last year I was looking for something very casual, easy, and straightforward. I connected with someone who said they wanted the same thing. We agreed to meet up. He changed the plans twice over one weekend. On the third, and last, attempt to meet he texted me less than two hours before the pre-determined time to say he didn’t think he was going to make it. When I confronted his behavior and asked if he was a catfish, he finally confessed that he has a girlfriend. I let him know that between his relationship status (he was not in an open relationship) and his flakey behavior I was definitely not interested in pursuing anything with him. He begged for me to meet him, saying he’d get in his car to drive to me right then and there. I repeatedly told him “No” and reiterated why. His response? Send dick picks to convince me to change my mind. I blocked him on my phone. The next morning I opened up the dating app I was using at the time to find that he had sent me more messages. He still wouldn’t take “No” for an answer and saw nothing wrong with his behavior. It was borderline alarming. I blocked him on there as well and reported him to the app’s admin. Customer service did absolutely nothing, didn’t even bother to respond to my complaint. I deleted the app entirely.

The Lazy Casanova

  1. Charming.
  2. All talk and no intention.
  3. Uses texting as a crutch to avoid being vulnerable.
  4. May go on first dates, and they may even go well, but has no intention of developing a relationship. It’s a fabricated “spark” that is used to lure the woman into a sexual encounter.
  5. Prone to ghosting.

Example: A few years back I went on a coffee date with a yoga instructor who was new to the area. Things went well enough that he segued our date from coffee in the park into brunch at a nearby café. After heading to our respective homes after the date he texted to say that he enjoyed our time together and was interested in seeing me again. He was about to head out of town on a trip for a week but wanted to meet up again upon his return. I let him know I was up for it. I never heard from him again.

Long Distance Catfish

  1. Very engaging with initial communication (text/email/phone calls).
  2. Lighthearted and fun personality, has shared interests.
  3. Enjoys “the chase”. Goes out of their way to keep in contact on a regular basis.
  4. Lives outside of my immediate area.
  5. States intention to meet in person, but ghosts.

Example: In my early twenties I connected with a guy online who was from a city two hours away from me, though at the time we “met” he was finishing up his last semester at college on the East Coast. We emailed extensively for over two months and made plans for a date once he was back home in California. I had coordinated our date to take place over a weekend when I would already be in his city, as I had pre-existing plans to visit a good friend of mine that lived in the same area. I sent him a text when I was leaving my friend’s house and heading to the restaurant where we were set to meet. He didn’t respond right away so I figured he was in the car driving. I arrived at the restaurant and parked. I texted him again to let him know I had arrived. I waited in the car for awhile so I could give him time to respond. Ten minutes passed. I tried calling him. It went to voicemail. I waited another twenty minutes and left one more voicemail before driving the two hours home. I was naïve, confused, worried and dejected. I never heard from him again.

The Lonely Dreamer

  1. Enthusiastic about the idea of me, but not an active listener. Puts me on a pedestal and doesn’t really get to know me.
  2. Eager to get into a relationship.
  3. Exaggerates their interests and attributes so that they seemingly line up with my own.
  4. Wants to move things along quickly. Ready to fall in love, right now, regardless of reality.
  5. Has major underlying issues that they cannot/will not address, and uses relationships as a way to cope with their insecurities and past traumas.

Example: I wrote a whole long paragraph about this but deleted it because I don’t want to re-hash in detail my grievances regarding the person I was in a relationship with last. To put it simply, he was a good person, but very lost ad used me as a Band-Aid for the troubles he couldn’t face. Thankfully I figured out the facade fairly quickly and avoided a situation that could have gotten much, much messier.

Catch and Release Fisherman

  1. Able to carry on normal, get-to-know-you conversations.
  2. Asks me out on a date within a week or so of meeting online. Likes to see if we click in person as opposed to gauging our chemistry on several prolonged weeks of texting.
  3. The first few dates go really well, and it is easily apparent that they’re into me. They make the first moves (initiate the first kiss, hold my hand, compliment me, say they want to see me again, etc).
  4. Dislikes vulnerability; emotionally stunted. Often hasn’t been in a relationship in a long time, or recently ended a long-term relationship.
  5. Derails any potential for us by abruptly breaking things off via poor communication or baseless excuses, all in an effort to avoid vulnerability or the potential for rejection, despite the obvious mutual attraction we share.

Example: The last person I went on an in-person date with really impressed me initially. They were engaging and easy going, seemingly well-rounded and quietly confident. I liked that they were independent, financially stable, and seemed genuinely interested in getting to know me. I arrived at our first date early and bought myself a coffee so I could avoid the dreaded and awkward “who pays for what” situation. Immediately after our introduction he noticed the coffee in my hand and said, “You bought your coffee already? I would have gotten that for you.” I smiled and replied, “That’s sweet of you. You can just get my next one.”

Time flew by and the date lasted for four hours. When we walked back to our cars he asked if I’d be up for getting together again. I loved that he was visibly a little nervous when he asked because it led me to assume he liked me as much as I liked him so far. Our second date went even better. When I walked up to him at the start of the date we hugged and then he kissed me on the cheek. I was surprised at the gesture but delighted that he was confident enough to show his interest in a straightforward, sweet way. It’s not something I can recall anyone else ever doing early on in the dating process. The second date lasted about five hours and ended with an electric make out session. He walked me to my car at the end of the night and texted me later to make sure I got home okay.

A few days passed before I checked in with him to see if he was interested in going on a third date. “Of course,” he replied. I told him I’d leave our third date plans up to him since I sort of chose the first two dates. Over the next few days he wasn’t as engaging with his texts to me, knew that we both had the upcoming weekend off, yet he didn’t initiate any plans for a third date. Deducing from how the first two dates went, and his reply to my question about a third date, I decided to call him and get the ball rolling. Maybe his nerves were showing again.

He was thrown off by the call. Apparently he doesn’t like talking on the phone. We made plans to get together toward the end of the weekend, but he stated that they were “tentative”. Immediately I took this as a red flag. The enthusiasm and directness he had during our initial interactions was apparently waning. Sure enough, on the morning of what was to be our third date he texted to say he was having second thoughts about dating. I tried calling him right after he texted, but he refused to talk on the phone. It turned into a three-day, sporadic text conversation that felt like pulling teeth to get him to communicate. I assumed he was backing out of dating me, for whatever reason, but he further confused me by saying that it wasn’t his intention to end things with me. Huh? After a little more back and forth I finally told him that although I really and truly enjoyed our first two dates, I am looking to date someone that is an excellent communicator and knows what they want. He never responded and I haven’t heard from him since.

Divorcee Rebounder

  1. Excellent communicator.
  2. Open about their situation: single father looking to get back into the dating scene.
  3. Mature and responsible.
  4. Outgoing and kind.
  5. Not actually ready to date, which only becomes apparent after several weeks of dating.

Example: Recently I spent about a month messaging and texting a man who has sole custody of his kids. I was attracted to his outlook on life, his morals, his willingness to work hard to achieve his goals, and his passion for enjoying life through exploring and learning. I have a wordy texting style (I prefer to spell out words and use complete sentences instead of relying on memes and abbreviated wording), and appreciated that he does as well. We didn’t communicate every day of the week, but most evenings we’d spend an hour or two getting to know each other before nodding off to sleep. With the pandemic causing both of us to be mostly stuck at home taking care of our respective families (i.e. my mom/his kids), we looked forward to eventually arranging for a day to meet up for a socially distanced date outdoors. After four or five weeks of our routine texting courtship there was a several-day lull in communication. I reached out to him finally to check in and he confessed that he decided he wasn’t actually ready for anything serious yet. I appreciated his honesty, and told him as such, but made sure to re-clarify that although I’m looking for a relationship I’m not in a rush. We hadn’t gone on a date yet so we didn’t even know if our connection would translate in person. He was set in his decision. Understanding, but disappointed, I expressed that although it doesn’t do anything to change the situation, I wished that he had figured this out about himself before meeting me on a dating app, and especially since very early on we had discussed what each of us were hoping to get out of using the app. He apologized and we ended things amicably.

I could write an entire book solely on my dating experiences, clearly I have bountiful material on the subject. (Don’t we all?) For now though I have decided to delete the dating apps on my phone, again, and put romance on the back burner once more. It takes a lot of energy to navigate and interpret other adults, especially when the results of my efforts are consistently fruitless very early on in the process. My honesty and intentions feel of little value when the men I meet don’t reciprocate the same from the get-go. I don’t want to give up hope that I’ll come across people who align with what I’m looking for, but I’d be lying if I said I’m not discouraged.

I’ll put myself out there again eventually, but for now it’s time to step away and re-direct some of my focus on other aspects of my life. I only have so much energy to spare these days and I’m not willing to waste it on people who don’t value me. I want to grow with someone, have them positively challenge me to be better, and vice versa. I do not want to be in a position of having to mentor someone through how to conduct themselves when dating. So during this self-appointed break I might as well keep getting to know myself. Goodness knows there’s always self-improvement to be had.

I’ll leave you with this sentiment: Know what you want and what you’re looking for, be honest about it, be respectful, and have fun. Oh, and for all of our sake, don’t lie or ghost people. It does no one any favors, including perpetrators.

Self Care and Dating as a Millenial Caregiver: Part Two

I finished season nine of “Married at First Sight” with a fervor. Aside from the small, superficial satisfaction of television drama, I was most struck by Matt and all he encompasses. He was the villain I could recognize fully in a past romance of my own. It was baffling to see on the screen a parallel version of someone I once knew. It was eerie, yet fascinating. Being an audience member to this particular demeanor and behavior, instead of a victim to it, allowed me to dissect the situation, the red flags, and the characteristics subtly presented.

Although I have grown a lot in recent years, and most of the following less desirable characteristics are not as prominent for me, I saw a lot of myself in Amber:

  1. Hates and avoids confrontation.
  2. Wants love and is willing to forgive/move past issues too easily.
  3. Sensitive.
  4. Eager to trust a new love interest, but also guarded because of previous mistreatments.
  5. Responsible.
  6. Strives to grow.
  7. Quirky.

And here’s my conclusion of Matt’s characteristics:

  1. Great at telling people what they want to hear.
  2. Fun and easy going.
  3. Actions don’t back up words or promises.
  4. Not ready for commitment, but won’t say as such.
  5. Quick to apologize with conviction, but it’s disingenuous.
  6. Poor communicator.
  7. Selfish and self-serving, manipulative.
  8. Avoidant regarding feelings, personal details, and the past.
  9. Secretive about romantic involvement with other women.

The guy I was involved with, who is a dead ringer for Matt and the above traits, was someone I spent time with about a decade ago. Our friendship and romance was sporadic for a couple years. Let’s call him Jon. He was tall, handsome, athletic, fun to be around, goofy, subtly charming, and mysterious. Embarrassingly I admit that the nickname I used for him was “TDH”, which stood for Tall, Dark, and Handsome. We started off as flirtatious buddies, often hanging out while with a group of mutual friends. The first time he made a move on me I was ecstatic. I leaned into the sparks eagerly. I was too naïve and smitten to speak up when, in the weeks and months afterward, he started showing signs of dishonesty and egotistical tendencies. His charm was intoxicating, but at least I had the wherewithal to start keeping a list of the instances he would flake on me. That’s right…a tangible list. It was a feeble attempt to untangle emotion from reality. We’d make plans to go for drinks or grab a bite or attend a professional sporting event, and then at the last minute he’d cancel. I’d be heartbroken, but I still held out hope.

The first time I cut ties with him was hard. I had enough of his say “one thing but do another” approach, but I badly wanted him. Our break lasted for a few months until one day out of the blue he texted me. We wanted to see me, and to apologize. I resisted at first, but eventually gave in. I met up with him. He was drunk at a party on the other side of town. He met me outside and profusely apologized for treating me the way he did. Jon went on and on about how kind and wonderful I am, and how I didn’t deserve the things he did. I accepted his apology and melted. And again we began the cycle of him abusing my forgiveness and attraction to him, and him repeating all of the same nonsense from before. The M.O. was: Apologize with false sincerity. Praise me for being a good person. Shower me with attention and physical connection. Flake on plans. Have secret relationships with other women. Avoid commitment of any kind. Lie. And then I would have a breakdown and distance myself from him when my heart couldn’t bear the romantic gaslighting.

When I became despondent enough to remove myself from him for good, I did so with great internal struggle. It was one of my lowest points. The combination of a residual, years-long struggle with depression and my relationship with him caused me to give in to self-harm. It was a desperate attempt to escape my emotions and the pain of believing I’m “not good enough” for him, or for anyone. At the time I only told one person about my dangerous cry for help. Within a few months though I picked myself up and felt relieved (and proud) that I had finally drawn a clear boundary for myself. I had walked away willingly and accepted the self-respect I had been missing for far too long.

This relationship changed me.

It had been such a cathartic experience to expunge Jon from my life that I was strong enough to handle what came next. Later that same year I learned that he was in a committed relationship with the woman I had confided to regarding the half-hearted suicide attempt. It was a double betrayal. His girlfriend tried on multiple occasions to force me into attending social events where they’d be present. I refused to participate in their drama, egos, and any twisted attempts to insert me into unhealthy and unstable situations. I wasn’t angry. I was disappointed, tired of bullshit.

It was the first time I really stood up for myself. It was empowering.

It’s interesting to know what will happen when you find yourself in a corner, tired from repeating the same mistake again and again. Thankfully the silver lining of Jon was that he was the first chapter of my journey toward emboldening my true self.

Years later when I found myself in another relationship with a man who couldn’t commit, even just to saying that we were a couple (after five months of dating), I ripped off the band aid swiftly. There was no back and forth, on and off stalling of the inevitable. I could have ended things sooner, but I’m prone to giving people the benefit of the doubt. The important thing is that I chose to demand decency and respect instead of accepting sub-part treatment in a disillusioned hope of turning things around.

Soon after the end of this second empowering relationship I met a man who was kind and thoughtful, and reciprocated my feelings of interest. We fell in love. And when we broke up after two-and-a-half years I was of course devastated. But instead of choosing dangerous coping mechanisms I channeled my heartbreak into planning and executing a 48 state road trip. It was the third chapter of growth into adulthood and learning more about myself, how to curate healthier relationships, and paying attention more quickly to red flags.

With the most recent boyfriend a couple years ago I broke things off only three months into the relationship. A sweet, well-intended man, he hid his traumas and pain by overcompensating. He aimed to please by lying with detail about having similar interests and hobbies (cooking, camping, traveling, rock climbing, etc). He downplayed his religious ideologies so that he outwardly aligned with my own style of moral compass and personal guidance. More than once he tried to bribe me with sushi so that I’d visit him, even after I explained that he didn’t need to buy me dinner in order for me to want to see him. I was dating him, so therefor I wanted to spend time with him. All he had to do was invite me over.

Just about a month after we were “official” he started bringing up marriage, kids, and how he was going to propose to me. He asked if I loved him. I told him, honestly, I wasn’t there yet but appreciated his vulnerability in telling me how he cared about me. I asked for patience so that I could develop the same feelings in time.

Our whirlwind romance ended soon after an incident where he ditched me repeatedly at his sibling’s wedding and then drunkenly crashed his car on a rural road post-reception. Thankfully I was not in the car because we drove separately to the event, nor did I realize how much he had been drinking beforehand…because I spent a majority of the event by myself trying to make small talk with his family and the other wedding guests. The more time that went that on, the more blatantly I could see his pain manifesting in manipulative and unhealthy ways. These hints and allegations made me see that he was trying to fix his life and unhappiness with marriage and a new baby, as if they were cure-alls instead of things to be manifested with care and deep consideration. The early-days grace period of patience and giving the benefit of the doubt had clearly expired, so I let him go.

These men are all important mile markers during the last two decades. They’ve helped teach me how to date and what kind of people I should deem worth my attention and time.

Since becoming a caregiver I’ve found that dating hasn’t gotten any better, but enforcing boundaries and basic expectations had gotten much easier. Navigating stress, grief, and the constant care of my mom has further helped me develop relationship maturity. Now red flags are like flares at midnight instead of traffic signs I know are there but chose to ignore.

Here I am today, more sure of myself than ever, and dating is still generally and consistently disappointing, exhausting even. In my opinion online dating has only made things worse. Yes, I am aware that some people have found great success with this approach to finding love, but here and now I’m speaking in terms of my own experiences. Between Jon and present day I have always preferred to meet potential partners organically, in person, but I’ve also put efforts into trying several dating apps and sites (not simultaneously). OKCupid, JDate,, E-Harmony, Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge. These virtual grounds for potential romance have become more clutch since the unfortunate trifecta of a small town, caregiving responsibilities, and the pandemic has come into play. All of these apps and sites have resulted in a lot of the same exhausting dead-ends. After years of connecting with several dozen men I’ve found there to be behavioral patterns and archetypes across the board.

To be continued…

Navigating Self Care and Dating as a Millennial Caregiver

Let me begin by giving you some background about where I’ve grown from. I love dark subject matter, always have. I find things like true crime, scary movies, adversity, abnormal psychology, and emotional footwork fascinating. Over the years though I’ve become much more sensitive to the heaviness of such avenues of human turbulence. As a young adult I rarely cried. I compartmentalized my emotions and kept them buried deep. Sometimes I wanted to experience a physical release, badly, but I couldn’t squeeze a single drop of briny melancholy from either tear duct. Hiding my true self was a sort of torture I don’t wish to self-inflict again.

Now it’s entirely unsurprising for me to tear up for even the smallest of triggers, sad movie previews and kind gestures alike. I still use art as a prominent form of self-expression. The only difference is that I am much more comfortable with being publicly vulnerable as opposed to drowning in angst. No surprise here, as you’re reading my journal right now.

But when I reach the crest of a stress wave I now know that it’s much more healthy to balance out the anxiety with activities that aren’t also emotionally grim. As much as I love immersing in human grit during my down time I understand that paying attention to the tension in my body is key to knowing when it might be better to step away from saturating myself further with that which is cumbersome.

This is a new skill I’m still developing, but I find it wonderfully helpful to take note of how my body and mind feel on any given day. What is my instinct telling me? What do I crave? What do I need that I’m suppressing?

During this pandemic and the journey of caregiving I’ve understood that hiking, travelling, personal space, venting to/validation from trusted friends, creating art, love, and spending time unwinding with other positive outlets are key to keeping me sane. So instead of watching the newest deep dive documentaries about Jeffrey Epstein or the Golden State Killer when I’m struggling with anxiety, I’m trying to choose lighter avenues of relaxation. Shows like “The Floor is Lava” on Netflix, Instagram accounts like that of @urbanfarmstead, and podcasts such as “RadioLab”, are all examples of “productive down time”. This doesn’t necessarily mean physically productive (like cleaning and organizing are), but emotionally productive. It’s a way to create space for recharging and processing, taking a step back so I can more quickly move forward again. It can be equally as important as the physically productive stuff, so don’t let anyone shame you into believing otherwise.

You’re probably thinking, “Okay Lauren, so how does this all tie into dating?”

If you haven’t figured it out by now I tend to take the backroads when it comes to narratives. I’m sure my friends will easily vouch for this as well. I value details and backstory, so bear with me.

The other day I searched Netflix for something easy going and mindless to watch. I’m not into many reality tv shows a-la “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” or “The Real Housewives”, but for some reason I was drawn to the advertisement for “Married at First Sight”. There are eleven seasons, but I’ve only ever seen an episode or two a few years back. The premise of the show is that a team of matchmakers set up four couples for marriage. The pairs meet for the first time on their wedding day. Obviously the concept of arranged marriage isn’t new, but it is culturally foreign for a majority of Americans. The show is an intriguing social experiment, packaged and produced to keep audiences interested though there is plenty of material for the creators to work with.

I dove right into season nine. Right away I was magnetically enthusiastic about one groom in particular: Matt. He checked a lot of boxes for me when it comes to men I easily gravitate toward: lowkey charming, quietly confident yet reserved, very tall, frequently smiling, verbally and physically affectionate, passionate about something, excited about travel and being outdoors.

His counterpart, Amber, seemed at first to be an excellent fit for him. She was understandably nervous, but excited to put herself out there with a Hail Mary for lifelong love. After a pattern of unhealthy and unsuccessful relationships she was tired of picking men who were emotionally unavailable, didn’t want to put in the work and who chose not to respect the generosity and loyalty she abundantly offers. Amber thought that perhaps entrusting the panel of experts (a sociologist/sexologist, pastor/marriage counselor, and a relationship therapist) would yield a more desirable result.

Her and Matt hit it off right away, brandishing exuberant smiles when first drinking in each other’s appearance. Amber gushed to the cameras and to Matt that she was really attracted to him and was more than pleased with who she was set up with. He reciprocated with leaning into her ardor and by confessing that her forwardness made her even more likeable. They quickly learned about several common interests between them, which of course intensified the immediate connection.

Throughout the first few episodes it seemed promising for them. The initial attraction made it apparent that the pairing was a great foundation for a potentially successful relationship. But in true reality tv fashion by episode eight some drama began smoldering and then quickly ignited into a downward spiral of relationship tumultuousness. Matt left one evening for a casual hang out with a friend, but left his wedding ring at home, didn’t answer his phone for several hours, and didn’t return home for the night. It eventually became apparent that Matt was not honest about his intentions with Amber. He portrayed himself as someone ready to commit, emotionally available, respectful and responsible, and serious about making big changes in his life. It was a facade.

In that last scene of this episode I was hit with a reality of my own: Amber is me.

to be continued…

Making A House A Home

I’ve mentioned before that Mom’s always been a go-getter, someone who often tries to fix or make things herself. She’s no Joanna Gaines, nor are her decorative choices usually on-trend, but Mom is a responsible homeowner. She took care of her house diligently, never afraid to use a little patience and elbow grease before calling in handy reinforcements.

But there came a time when she could no longer figure out how to operate her lawn mower. Appliances started to break unnecessarily. Knobs on the washer and dryer were broken off because she fiddled with them while attempting to remember how they operate. The dishwasher had a shallow pool of water inside it, rendering it out of commission for awhile. The microwave gave up. Her vacuum fell apart. The sliding glass door that separates the dining room from the backyard was stuck shut. The dog had peed on the carpet on a few occasions, but because her sense of smell is greatly diminished (due to Alzheimer’s) and her decreasing attention to detail, she didn’t always clean up the accidents correctly, if at all.

Most telling of all was the disorganization. I’ve always known Mom to be extremely clean and orderly, much more so than myself. When her house started to look a little cluttered and her counters were slowly accumulating dozens of post-it notes and knickknacks, I knew her cognitive abilities were really starting to decline.

In early 2019 I decided to take on a huge project: fix up, remodel, and redecorate Mom’s house.

I started with her kitchen cabinets. With some help from my best friend and her husband I removed all of the doors from the bases, sanded them down a bit, and then painted them a welcoming, homely white. It completely changed the feel of the kitchen, from outdated and disappointing to look at, to bright and cheerfully inviting. The room itself looked bigger. It was exactly the sort of result I was hoping to achieve for the whole house: make it more modern, but keep some personality, and also make each room less dungeon-like. Unfortunately the house is oddly designed and some of the rooms don’t get enough natural light.

I’ve never owned a house or taken on such an extensive project before, so it’s certainly been quite a process. I definitely romanticized it at first. I thought that I’d be spending every weekend at Mom’s so I could tackle the next phase of tasks. Ha. At least my optimism was charming.

Working multiple jobs, being Mom’s sole caregiver, and attempting to navigate (and enjoy) my own life were all huge factors in deflating my grandiose ideas of quick remodeling success. And of course there was the enormous mental health and emotional struggles of taking on more and more responsibilities.

Now that I live with Mom I’ve been able to tackle things around the house a bit more often, but time and patience are challenging when you’re living with a relative with declining health. With each passing month her health fades a little more and I have to take on another handful of tasks for her. Even daily, weekly, or monthly chores don’t always get done in a timely fashion. That’s okay of course because I’m doing my best to juggle it all, but it doesn’t usually feel relaxing to live in a home that I know needs constant managing and attention.

Here I am now in mid-2020 figuring out how to balance everything amidst another natural disaster of sorts. The challenges never end. Such is life I suppose, but damn, this shit is bananas.

Since I started focusing part of my energy toward fixing up and decorating Mom’s house I’ve completed the following:

  1. Repainted most of the kitchen cabinets.
  2. Switched the living room and the dining room.
  3. Had a new roof installed.
  4. Replaced about half of the fencing around her property’s perimeter.
  5. Painted several rooms.
  6. Cleaned walls.
  7. Shampooed carpets.
  8. Sold or donated furniture, clothes, kitchen utensils, etc.
  9. Removed broken blinds and replaced them with light-encouraging curtains.
  10. Landscaped the front and back yards so they look decent, though they need more work.
  11. Added lots of potted plants, indoors in both yards.
  12. Installed a small garden (with some assistance from Your Tiny Farm)
  13. Cleaned and upgraded the patio furniture with seat cushions, an umbrella, and a table cloth.
  14. Organized and de-cluttered Mom’s room.
  15. Organized the existing shelving contents in the garage.
  16. Built additional shelving in the garage.
  17. Added wallpaper to part of one room, as an accent wall, only for the wallpaper to fall off shortly afterward.
  18. Had an awful, illogical ceiling light fixture replaced.
  19. Hired people to fix the bathrooms (new caulking, showerheads, clear drains, etc)
  20. Hired a plumber to unclog the garbage disposal and the dishwasher.
  21. Replaced the microwave, washer, dryer, and oven/stove.

I’m sure I’m forgetting more of what’s been completed, but you get the gist. I tried to incorporate free or second hand items as much as possible. Many of the potted plants (real and artificial) were bought from Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace from people who were moving or downsizing. One lady sold me so many plants at a steep discount that my entire car was stuffed to the brim with various foliage and ceramics pots. I’ve driven all over the county picking up furniture and house décor. I scoured online for months and months, looking for deals on household items I couldn’t afford to buy brand new. I took advantage of free items from friends and work. The cute curtains we’re using currently are from one of the companies that employ me because they remodeled and replaced a lot of features around their facility.

I love learning new skills and trying to do as much work by myself as possible, but I also know my emotional and skill-level limits. I am incredibly grateful for the expertise and financing that was offered to me by my Dad. He has extensive knowledge about many aspects of construction (he’s worked in the industry for decades) which makes him an invaluable source for my never-ending questions and a great person to bounce my ideas off of. I’ve spent plenty of my own money over the years, and continue to without question, but without some help from family it would take me much longer to complete a lot of these to-do list items.

Despite all that’s been completed so far, there’s still much to get done. I’d like to swap the carpets for laminate wood flooring, repaint the exterior of the house, finish landscaping, replace the dishwasher, tackle redecorating and fixing Mom’s bathroom, and purge more unused or unnecessary items, among other things.

I love how things are coming together. It would be lovely to be able to host a housewarming party of sorts, once I finish all of the big changes to the house, but with COVID-19 that may be postponed for quite awhile. For the time being I’ll keep chipping away, doing what I can do learn, and grow, and shed old burdens for new.

A Mother, A Changeling

Few people who read this blog know my mom as she was fifteen or more years ago. Even less know her as long as I have. In many ways she was different than the person I see existing today. Mom was much less easy going. I remember her as an engaging yet strict parent.

Her and my dad are opposites, and not in a way that lends to a quirky, unlikely compatibility for decades. They fought often, even announced their divorce a few times over the years before finally committing to it when I was just out of high school.

There were a lot of rules in the house. Most were reasonable enough, but also equally stifling from the perspective of a kid. This sort of structuring and rigidity, along with bearing the responsibility that falls on a first born child, has led me to be a cautious, people pleasing person. I almost always think before I act. I analyze in great detail the words I’ve spoken to people and the actions I did or did not take. I’ve spent years figuring out how to move about in the world without worrying what other people’s perceptions of me are. I’ve worked hard to get away from this mindset, but I’m still a work in progress.

Some of the rules Mom enforced didn’t make sense at the time, and still don’t. Several that come to mind revolve around food. No chocolate cereals were allowed to fill our spoons in the mornings, like Cocoa Puffs, which were of course a favorite I longed for. But she let us have Cinnamon Toast Crunch, little carb squares heavily dusted in sugar. Our house was dry for us kids, meaning it had beer and wine for the adults but absolutely no soda of any kind. Well, with the exception of ginger ale, as it was something she doled out freely when we were home sick. Otherwise, such fizzy extravagances were reserved for vacations and limited to one can a day. My brother, sister, and I coveted them. Cream soda was my favorite because its syrupy goodness tasted the most forbidden.

My siblings and I would chant “K-F-C! K-F-C! K-F-C!” when we passed the exit for the fast food chain. Going out to eat, anywhere, was a luxury that we were rarely afforded. Our obsession for any food that wasn’t homemade only further deepened Mom’s determination to limit our exposure to meals foreign to our own kitchen. Nearly every lunch we ate at school was lovingly packed by her, but by the time I was in junior high I notoriously and frequently traded her sandwiches for Cup O Noodles, pan dulce, cafeteria issued chocolate milk and pizza rectangles, or Doritos doused in Tapatio.

For both financial and health reasons Mom made us dinner almost every night of the year. Chicken and broccoli, turkey burgers, spaghetti, hard shelled tacos with lean meat, potato leek soup, macaroni and cheese, and of course always salad. Her pizza dough was from scratch (but don’t tell her it wasn’t her best food accomplishment, despite what she was falsely led to believe by too-kind friends). Wheat loaves and Hawaiian rolls were coaxed from her beloved bread machine. She spent hours prepping the food for Thanksgivings, layered Jello casseroles for dessert in the summertime, and forced us to sneak in Ziplock bags of homemade popcorn for the few occasions we visited the movie theater.

She has always been a health nut, but I think the restrictions she put in place made us fixate on what we couldn’t have instead of emphasize the benefits of balance and portions, or more importantly, talk about where food comes from and how it’s made.

Despite playing into their mostly stereotypical American family roles my parents have always been determined, hardworking people. Dad often spent ten, twelve, or fourteen hour days at his job, and picked up side gigs on the weekends, to provide an income for our family of five. Mom was mostly stuck to the confines of a stay-at-home parent role, but gradually picked up jobs delivering newspapers and offering customer service in wine tasting rooms when we were in grade school. She handled most of the discipline, childcare, and other household duties. If my father was involved in any disciplinary actions I knew I had reached a serious level of misbehavior. Both of them were stubborn and resourceful and handy in ways that showed me the benefits (and downfalls) of engraving those traits in myself. I attribute my work ethic and prideful independence to them both.

Mom never graduated from college but took online and night classes as an adult so she could get her AA degree. She studied coding and real estate, but neither led to a career. She tiled our backyard patio, assembled furniture, painted stenciled motifs in the kitchen and our bedrooms. For the first several Halloweens of my life she would ask what I wanted to be a few months in advance and then got to work making a costume from scratch on her sewing machine. I still have a simple bridal dress and veil hanging in my closet somewhere from one such occasion.

Always the extrovert, Mom loved going places, meeting up with friends, and coordinating play dates for my siblings and me. Every year she signed us up for various sports and activities. I’ve tried a whole spectrum of them: soccer, basketball, tennis, swimming, volleyball, gymnastics, tap dance. I enjoyed some more than others, sticking to volleyball and swimming for several years and even joining competitive year-round teams for awhile.

Being just as flawed as the rest of us, “old Mom” was as varied in character as any other human. She was as fiercely loving and supportive as she was short tempered. She’d wake up her children in the middle of a summer night so we could all lay on the lawn and watch a meteor shower, but if we accidentally disturbed her mid-afternoon nap she would scream at us through gritted teeth, spittle hitting us at close range like tangible, irrational rage.

On the short drive over to my eighth grade Valentine’s Day dance she called me a slut for wearing a fringed skirt that stopped half-way to my knees. In the same breath she shamed me for liking the class Casanova (whom had pantsed me during recess at school a few years earlier) and didn’t want him to see me in an outfit that she deemed too provocative for my gangly frame. I had my first, impossibly awkward kiss with that same boy toward the end of the dance. We knocked teeth when he quickly and unexpectedly planted his lips on me during a slow dance. In contrast, sometime during tenth grade I told her that a guy I liked had asked me to be his girlfriend, a first for me. She was so delighted that she giddily threatened to make a cake.

Then there is an instance I remember starkly, when, having come home from a school dance, I had headed to my Mom’s room to check in and say goodnight before I retired to bed. She accused me of having smoked weed because she swore she could smell smoke on my clothes and my eyes were supposedly red. The more I tried to explain why I wasn’t high, the more she didn’t believe me. I didn’t get grounded, but I knew she held her suspicion to be true. The reality was that I was still several years from dipping my toes into any type of marijuana experimentation.

Straight A’s were my only option when it came to my pre-college education. Anything less was unacceptable and warranted a long lecture, at the least. There were consequences if any of the grades were below a “B”, including being grounded and having privileges taken away. At one point when my grades were slipping my mom had me procure weekly unofficial report cards from all of my teachers, a straight forward piece of paper where they signed their name and what my current class grade was for each corresponding subject. I learned to forge some of the signatures and alter the grades. It was easy to change pluses into minuses, etc. Mom eventually found out and I was of course in big trouble.

Two years after I graduated from high school I finally took the leap and started my “freshman” year of college at a nearby four-year private university. At the time I was not on good terms with Mom. I don’t recall what the specifics of the issue between us was, but I do remember that it had something to do with her being too controlling. Things between us were heated enough that my best friend and her family helped me were the ones to move me into my dorm room.

I only completed one year at this school because I was incredibly naive about college and how it was paid for. Neither of my parents had obtained college degrees (Mom hadn’t worked for her AA at that point), and they never really sat down with me to explain that college wasn’t something they could afford to gift me. I had very ignorantly assumed, via the college themed movies I had grown up watching, that everyone’s parents paid for college. I hated the idea of being burdened with another three years of student loans so I could complete a creative writing degree, so I opted out of school.

The purpose of me sharing these few stories regarding Mom is not to shame her for her misgivings as a parent or to dwell on some of my fond memories of her. Instead it is an insufficient offering to my readers, a slightly broader picture of who I knew my mom to be pre-dementia. It is not a complete anthology of her multi-faceted character, but a biased perspective based on my own experiences. I know for a fact that everyone else who has closely known her for decades will have their own understandings of who she is, some of their truths about her overlap with my own, and others are entirely different than what I know her to be. But the point is, to me there is a clear difference between who she was and who she now is. She is a changeling, an impostor of herself.

Apocalypse Now, and Again

***Please note that I began working on this particular essay toward the end of last year, so the setting of it takes place around that time, pre-COVID.***



Planning doesn’t equate preparedness. I experienced this lesson for the umpteenth time recently. Surely the passing of weeks and months will cause me to again slip the blindfold of comfort over my eyes, causing the familiar but somehow unexpected reaction of foolish surprise when things derail again.

With gratitude I took advantage of a new free ride service for seniors in my hometown, arranging Friday rides for Mom to and from her home and the health club. The drivers are volunteers. The coordinator, operating out of the local senior center, is an upbeat and organized woman whose proficiency I respect and appreciate immensely.

For several weeks I followed the protocol and made requests for a driver precisely one week in advance. A ride was always arranged for us without incident. The volunteers were kind and timely, making the new routine enjoyable for Mom. I didn’t work on Friday mornings so I was technically available to drop her off myself, but I needed some relief from my duties and for Mom to get used to other people assisting her. She relies on me. A lot. Now that I live with her she has a newly developed habit of asking me for simple things instead of doing them herself.

“What time is it?”

“Where’s my breakfast?”

She has a digital watch on her wrist and packets of oatmeal in a clear canister on the kitchen counter. She is still capable of checking the time and making herself instant oatmeal, but I have unintentionally caused her to be more dependent on me by often doing the work for her. I’m trying to be better about encouraging her to retain some independence while she still has it.

“Why don’t you check your watch and let me know what time it says.”

“There is some peaches and cream oatmeal in the canister if you are hungry.”

For an equally important reason, I introduced the ride service to Mom’s routine so that I could go on vacation. I desperately needed some self-care, but as her Alzheimer’s advances it becomes increasingly challenging to leave her for more than a day or two. Keeping her in line with a routine as much as possible not only benefits me, but greatly affects the symptoms of her disease. Anything out of the ordinary can cause her to become more forgetful, disoriented, emotionally fragile, and prone to poor judgment.

All in all, I needed the ride service more than she did.

The post-summer getaway plan was to take five days off for a road trip up to Bend, Oregon to visit a close friend of mine, Rachael. Her sister, Sarah, would be accompanying me. The three of us had previously lived together and often reflect upon those years as a highlight of our young adult lives.  

Everything was set in place for Oregon. Mom was to be picked up on Thursday and Friday by the ride service and again on Saturday by my dear friend Niamh. This would make it so Mom had multiple opportunities to get out of the house and hours of exercise and socialization. Sunday and Monday would be her “weekend” of rest and time at home.

Around 5pm on Wednesday, October 23rd Sarah and I left town and began the straightforward drive north in my Forester. We had booked a hotel room in a small town half way to Bend so that we could break up the drive and avoid traveling late into the night. Fueled by anticipation, podcasts, a close call with a buck crossing the freeway directly in front of us, and a pit stop for pizza, we made it to our destination with a gratifying spread of road trip experiences.

By 10:35pm the seam of our perceived safety and exuberance suddenly began to unravel. Simultaneously our phones dinged with an alert from Nixle, the public safety notification system we had previously subscribed to during the horrific multiple fires that consumed our county in 2017.

Another fire had started. And just like two years previously it was a handful of miles from my dad’s house, and less than a dozen miles from mine and Sarah’s respective homes in the bordering towns south and north of him.

We called our parents to warn them and began scouring the internet for more information. Then the texts and phone calls started coming.

No longer were we languidly gathering ourselves to tuck in for the night. We became alert, on edge for the potential danger. After midnight we finally forced ourselves to put our phones down and get some rest.

At 6:24am a mandatory evacuation notice was given for my dad’s entire town. I woke him with another phone call.

Sleepily he answered, “Hey Lauren. Everything is okay here.”

“Dad. No. There’s a mandatory evacuation notice. You guys need to leave right now.”

By the time Sarah and I had breakfast and were back on the road my brother and dad had left home with their dogs and were figuring out accommodations elsewhere. I was relieved but understandably, mildly manic. I tried to contain the rapidness of my thoughts and the vibrancy I felt in body, but I’m sure Sarah easily picked up on my state. There wasn’t anything I could do. The opportunity to save anything of value to me from the house had slipped away while I slept. And I didn’t have the ability to dictate the outcome of a wildfire, so I relinquished a portion of my anxiety to the will of nature. The situation was out of my control, but thankfully my family was safe.

I had about two days of leisure punctuated by tense moments of news updates, text alerts, and phone calls, before the vacation was officially defunct. As I savored walks around both the city of Bend and the extensive hiking trails beyond the borders of downtown, dined on breakfast bagels, sipped steamy coffee from new age cafes, and sopped up every shared moment with Sarah and Rachael, uncertainty was growing eight hours away in Sonoma County.

Mom’s rides had been canceled for Thursday and Friday so she was stuck at home, but it wasn’t much more than an inconvenience. In accordance with the long-standing arrangement by the ever gracious Niamh, Mom was picked up and brought to the health club on Saturday morning. About an hour after their arrival, at 10:36am, the chime of a new text captured my attention just as Sarah, Rachael and I pulled up to a breakfast cafe.

“Alert: Mandatory evacuation ordered for the city of Healdsburg and the town of Windsor due to the Kincade fire.”

Mom needed to evacuate and I wasn’t there.

Immediately I fell apart, succumbing to the sharpness of reality. While trying to curb uncontrollable sobbing I made back-to-back phone calls to Niamh, my brother, Dad, sister, and my best friend’s parents whom happened to live a few blocks from Mom. I couldn’t think clearly, but desperately needed someone to evacuate Mom and her dog.

My sister lives in Southern California so she was unable to help. Dad had left the day before to ride out the fire in a location four hours away, but had forgotten to tell me during the stupor and chaos of everything. My brother isn’t the type to take initiative or have a plan in an emergency. In the minutes between frantic calls to those I was supposed to lean on the most in times of need, I unraveled further. Mild shock numbed my judgment. All I could focus on was how vulnerable my Mom was. And the guilt, the pit of my stomach clenched with the force of it.

It wasn’t that I thought Mom’s life was in immediate danger, it was more so intense concern regarding how she would handle being evacuated, who would evacuate her, and how long she would be displaced. I pictured her crying with wide, blank eyes. Her pupils almost vanish during intensified moments of dementia, giving her an obvious look of someone who is “not all there”. It is exceptionally challenging to take care of her during such elevated instances. She cannot follow direction or make many logical decisions. She often will wander around a room for ages, stopping every few moments to stand and stare as if she had just arrived on this planet for the first time, unsure of what direction to move in first.

Niamh called me back with news of decisive action.

“We swung by your mom’s house to grab her dog and a change of clothes. I didn’t grab anything else because I don’t know how much time we have. We’re on the way to my house.”

A wave of temporary relief flooded me.

Soon after the call I packed my things and started the drive back home, leaving Sarah with her family in Oregon.

I drove straight to Niamh’s house, arriving before midnight. I walked in the door to find a quietly anxious but brave faced Niamh, her husband, a pair of their friends who also had to evacuate, and my mother who was happily drinking a glass of wine.

Mom was thrilled to see me, and it was equally a huge comfort seeing her in the flesh, safe and sound.

All of us women stayed up until about 2am to swap stories, theories, concerns, and frequently refresh news sources on our phones to mine for new information.

With only a couple hours of sleep under way the household was awakened by a symphony of beeps! and dings! Niamh’s city was systematically being evacuated, district by district. Her neighborhood was on standby at first, but we knew that in moments we’d need to get on the road. We grabbed our bags of essentials, packed and ready by the foot of our beds and by the front door. With no time to really process what was happening we all hugged, parted with our respective partners, and headed south.

I called my best friend, Cathy, who temporarily lives in the South Bay, to let her know that my plan was to find a hotel near her. That way I could at least be near someone I loved, again, and have a smidge of normalcy during the uncertainty and chaos. Her and her husband insisted that I stay at their apartment instead of pay for a hotel. We gratefully obliged, arriving to their sleepy welcome a blink after sunrise.

Cathy’s parents joined us a few hours later after having secured a hotel room down the street. In total there were eight adults (Cathy’s mother-in-law happened to be in town), Cathy’s one-month-old baby, and three dogs (my mom’s, and Cathy’s family dogs).

We were safe.

I spent the following days fluctuating in and out of exhaustion, worry, gratitude, and survival mode.

During the day while most everyone was tending to their own responsibilities of work, law school, and babysitting, I occupied my time by taking my mom out for excursions around town. One midday we went mini-golfing, relishing only having to share the entire grounds with one other family. She loved playing, repeating many times over how “This is really good for my brain.” Without the pressure of anyone waiting on us to finish each hole we could spend a luxurious amount of time conquering the obstacles. Mom of course needed a generous number of attempts to coax her golf ball to where it needed to land, but I didn’t mind. Watching her made me appreciate the few moments of feeling present, temporarily setting aside thoughts about whether or not her and my dad’s houses would burn.

Another day we went shopping and then ended up at a movie theater. We spent a few hours browsing store after store in a huge mall for underwear. None of them carried a single pair. Mom had only two outfits, one of which she had already worn for couple days. We left the capitalist metropolis with a few bags of clearance t-shirts and funky pants from Old Navy. Underwear would have to wait one more day.

Before heading back to the apartment I took her to see “Hustlers”, the movie that starred Jennifer Lopez as a ring leader of unethically wealthy strippers. The only genre of cinema that Mom likes these days is comedy. This was the closest I could get at the time.

After strolling out of the dark of the theater into the lobby she asked with a quizzical look, “Why’d you take me to see that?”

With sarcasm I laughed, “What? You didn’t like it?”

By the end of the week, on Halloween morning, we received notice that the mandatory evacuation order for our hometown was lifted. The pair of us made our way back that afternoon, driving through apocalypticly empty neighborhoods and avenues blanketed in smoke the tint of wet rust.

From start to finish it was an experience that I will remember for the rest of my days. Mom clung to the emotions of it for a few months afterward, but eventually forgot the ordeal all together. Again, a small, rare gift of her disease. Sometimes when I struggle to find the silver lining in our situation I think of those days we spent together as evacuees, when survival overshadowed the focus of our day-to-day strife.

With What We’re Given We Shall Create

I started watching the series “Ozark” the other evening. It’s good. Really good actually. Dark and foreboding, an intricate display of how complicated humans often are. We’re all multi-dimensional. We struggle with making choices all of the time. We balance decisions based on need, want, necessity. Many of us try to use some sort of moral compass to guide us to making the “best” decisions. Obviously “Ozark” is an extreme, fictional example of this, but it got me thinking.

The main character, Marty Byrd, constantly needs to come up with clever ways to get himself out of precarious situations. Despite having a brilliant problem-solving mind he always finds that two or more new situations will arise before he can celebrate his latest success at dodging the inevitable: his untimely demise.

As a caregiver this is what Alzheimer’s feels like to me. In a way I am Marty Byrd.

I balk at the thought of “The List.” This is the simple moniker I’ve given the series of tasks that I constantly have looming over my consciousness. This list causes me to have stress dreams at night. It invokes an irrational need to bite and pick at my fingers for hours at a time. The List is always with me though I choose not to carry it.

Tasks are constantly crossed off this list, but the length of it never shortens because new tasks are always added. Responsibilities. Decisions. Phone calls to execute. Legal and medical obstacle courses to navigate. Things to repair or clean or purge. People to please. Egos to negotiate with. Finances to manage. Groceries to buy. Advice to weed through. Self-education about this whole process.

At times I wonder to myself, “Is this life? Will I always feel this way, even when Mom is gone? Even after she passes will I always have ‘The List’? And will it forever be just as long as it ever was?”

I’ve also thought about what it would be like if there were a reset button. Would I press it? Would starting over really matter in the end? I might not have to deal with the same problems, but I certainly would have problems nonetheless.

And then this leads me think, what is the meaning of all this? I’m not looking for anyone to give me an answer. Frankly, I don’t think anyone has one, or at least the right one. But as a human I’m apt to ponder this from time to time, so I do just that.

I squint at the Milk Way or into my mother’s eyes, and silently ask “Why?” a thousand different ways in a thousand different tongues.

There is no audit that can flush out an answer, but still I ask.

My daydreams are of uninterrupted afternoons, of highways I will never recall the name of and places tucked out of view from others. I fantasize about waking up with the sunrise from the confines of my tent for every day of the moon’s cycle. In my dreams I breathe salt laden air, hear the sucking of mud underneath my boots as they trek about. In my dreams I don’t care what day it is or how long until my next destination. I arrive when I arrive, exactly as I please. In my dreams there is no list, there is no worry wrapping around my throat.

Maybe the meaning of life, my life, is to make it take shape in the form of my dreams. The mediums I use may not be of my choosing, but at least I can work to mold it into a close manifestation, taking care to be mindful of others along the way.